Better than the Real Thing: The Revenant

I’ve noticed a pattern in contemporary cinema. Films are getting longer. It doesn’t matter what genre we’re talking about – superhero summer blockbuster, Oscar bait drama, comedy, or sci-fi epic. Long films aren’t necessarily a problem, if a lengthy run time is necessary. But the fact is, most of these movies can be told in less than two and a half hours. Where have all the editors gone? Why are we losing lean and tightly-paced movies for bloated ones? I blame the Transformers movies.

The Revenant is a unique film in that it prematurely uses up both of its cinematic set-pieces less than a quarter of the way through the film. Beginning with an incredible long-take ambush on a party of fur traders and culminating with a less-brutal-than-expected bear attack, the two set-pieces of the film are over by the twenty-five minute mark….which leaves only Leo’s labourious breathing and glacial walking/crawling speed, along with Tom Hardy’s unintelligible marble-mouthed character, to fill the remaining two hours.I can’t think of any other examples of a film that has had such an exciting beginning only to limp to the finish line for the rest of the movie. It would be like if Lord of the Rings: Return of the King began with the One Ring being thrown into Mordor and then two-and-half hours spent in the Shire with Frodo and Sam having three-legged potato sack races. If this is the best in cinema, it’s pretty underwhelming.

Meanwhile, the two-and-half minute trailer for The Revenant (almost exactly 1/60th of the final product) distills the essence of the film into a thrilling fight for survival, with Leo’s laboured breathing punctuating each close call while getting rid of the plot-halting dream sequences and incomprehensible dialogue:

Now that looks good.

Side note: For some reason, I kept coming back to Mel Gibson’s 2006 film Apocalypto while watching The Revenant. I think I was just reminded of the same story beats of having a hunted man in treacherous territory trying to survive against all odds and get revenge on the people who tried to kill him. As a survival story, Apocalypto is the superior film. The Revenant is a better-made one, but it lacks a pulse.

 

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The Wolf of Wall Street

wolf-of-wall-streetMorality in fairy tales is so uncomplicated. If a character is evil, their rotten nature manifests itself in their outward appearance. All cruel characters in fairy tales are ugly. And the beautiful characters are all pure of heart and soul. It would be so much simpler if real life worked that way.

The Wolf of Wall Street is an anti-morality tale. Actually, that’s being a bit generous. Morality isn’t on this film’s agenda at all. Instead, it’s a celebration of excess and depravity – drugs, money, and sex (the usual suspects) – with a bitter aftertaste. It’s the funniest movie Martin Scorsese has ever shot and a biting satire (or mirror?) of the financial world.

Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a twenty-something stockbroker. He starts off as a fresh-faced idealist, but after a chest-thumping talk from Matthew McConaughey and his firm’s implosion on Black Monday, he fully embraces boiler-room tactics to make millions by pressuring unsophisticated investors into buying questionable penny stocks. Along the way, he forms his own investment firm (named Stratton Oakmont, because it sounds old) and employs his drug-dealing buddies and Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), a salesman who lives in his apartment complex.

The characters are motivated by only one thing: greed. It isn’t enough that Belfort makes $49 million in one year because it’s “three million shy of a million dollars a week.” It’s not enough to buy a 140-foot yacht; it has to have its own helicopter and landing pad too. Belfort consumes pharmaceuticals like water, and throws outrageous parties that would make Dionysus blush. He’s the messiah of greed, and the rest of the characters worship him for it.

It’s a terrifically funny film, buoyed by Jonah Hill’s comedic rants and DiCaprio’s surprising gift for physical comedy. But it’s guilty fun. Scorsese chooses to base the film entirely from the traders’ perspective, without any scenes showing the devastation Stratton Oakmont has done to their “investors” who have forked over their life savings. It’s an effective choice because it implicates the audience in the shameless hedonism depicted onscreen, without showing any of the consequences. And that’s the point Scorsese and his cast are making – there were no real consequences for these individuals. Belfort parties, travels, lives lavishly, and his “downfall” (if you can call it that with a straight face) is that he ends up playing tennis for a few years in a white collar prison and then becomes a best-selling author and motivational speaker.

The most important scene in the film is when Kyle Chandler’s dogged FBI character sits silently on the subway during his commute home. You can see in his eyes that he’s wondering whether playing fair is worth it, or if taking a bribe would have been the better route. I’m not sure what he decides.

The Wolf of Wall Street is one of the funniest films of the year. The characters are dimwitted buffoons who take hour-long meetings to discuss the mechanics of dwarf-tossing but are still nevertheless able to bilk millions of dollars out of ordinary people with nothing but a telephone and sales script. But it’s also a frightening film – depicting immorality without consequences. The victims were just voices on a telephone. Greed gets the last laugh in this one.

Grade: A

Sidenote: There’s a good story I like about the perils of insatiable greed. Author Joseph Heller (Catch-22) was at a house party with a bunch of stockbrokers and financial executives.* One of the executives came up to the author and told him: “You see that kid over there? He’s twenty-six years old and he’s made more money than your book will ever make you in your lifetime.” Heller responded: “That may be true, but I have one thing that he’ll never have.” The executive, slightly incredulous, asked Heller what that was. Heller said: “Enough.”

*I think the true story is Kurt Vonnegut asked Heller this question at a billionaire’s party, but this is how the story was first told to me, and I just like this telling better.*

Shooting fish in a barrel: Award Movies of 2011

It’s about that time again – the lead-up to awards season when all the best movies of the year come out. And it’s fairly easy to predict which films will be nominees, much like its easy to predict what summer movies will top the box office (i.e. Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean, the last Harry Potter). Below is what I think will be the films that will be talked about ad nauseum in the coming months (and they may be talked about ad nauseum here too).

The Ides of March

It’s a political film (just in time for the 2012 election) so it’s timely. It stars George Clooney (who did double-duty directing as well), Ryan Gosling, Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei, etc. This one, I’m predicting, will be nominated in a lot of categories.

The Skin I Live In

Expect this one to be nominated for Best Foreign Language film, and while that category is always tricky to predict who will be the winner, renowned director Pedro Almodovar is known for his well-recieved films (the four films he’s shown at Cannes, including this one, have all be nominated for the Palme d’Or).

Margin Call

It’s about the financial crisis and it stars Kevin Spacey. It’s a shoe-in.

My Week with Marilyn

May not garner nominations for the bigger awards, but I expect Michelle Williams will be nominated as Best Actress for her portrayal of Marilyn Monroe.

J. Edgar

Clint Eastwood. Leonardo DiCaprio. Biopic. Well, this one will be nominated for everything.

The Descendants

Another George Clooney movie – this time from a favorite director of mine – Alexander Payne. The brains behind Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways, Payne has never made a bad movie. While it might not garner many nominations, at least a nod in the writing (or directing) categories would be nice.

A Dangerous Method

A David Cronenberg period drama about Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. Exploding heads are doubtful, but award nominations (Best Actor, Best Supporting) are a sure bet.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Based on a John le Carre novel (Best Adapted Screenplay nom – check) starring Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, and John Hurt (Best Supporting/Best Actor nominations in there somewhere) and a spy thriller plot. Probably a Best Picture nomination too – it has a good title.

Young Adult

It’s by Jason Reitman – who has directed four films with three of them being nominated for Best Picture. I think it’s safe to say he’ll be continuing the streak with this one, and Charlize Theron may just end up being nominated for Best Actress again.

The Iron Lady

The Weinstein Company always picks films that are often heavily-nominated and go on to win the big prize (The King’s Speech). This year round it’s Meryl Streep (Best Actress nomination- another notch on her belt) as Margaret Thatcher. Best Screenplay and Picture nominations? I would think so.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Tom Hanks stars in this adaptation of a Jonathan Safran Foer novel regarding a little boy’s attempts to come to terms with his father’s death on September 11th. Best Picture nominee? It could be a contender.

I also think Drive (Best Original Score nomination – I hope so) and Contagion (maybe a nod to director Steven Soderbergh?) could have a spattering of nominations as well. Just none of the big awards. Those are saved for the films mentioned above.

My predictions for Best Picture Nominees:

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

The Ides of March

Young Adult

The Iron Lady

A Dangerous Method

J. Edgar

And if last year’s winner is anything to judge by, this year’s winner will be a film that takes place in the past, is rather stuffy and has a muted, dreary set design, generates an inordinate amount of buzz during awards season, and then is never spoken, nor thought about ever again. So, The Iron Lady will win Best Picture.